Dressed in gently faded jeans and a solid dark-blue sport shirt, John Edwards sauntered across the stage of the Northwest Junior High School auditorium on a hot Saturday morning in June, talking to a labor union audience that was warm to him from his opening words.
“My view is not that complicated,” Edwards told the charter convention of Iowa’s Change to Win labor federation in his polished but folksy manner. “If we want to strengthen and grow the middle class in this country, if we want to grow America economically, if we want to see millions of people lifted out of poverty, the organized labor movement is a critical component of that. That’s the reason that wherever I am, I talk about making it easier to organize in the workplace, why that’s important for lifting people out of poverty and to strengthen the middle class.”
Politicians often praise unions at union halls, though rarely so effusively. But as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Edwards’ rhetoric goes a couple of steps farther.
A few days before, at a trendy bar in the affluent Streeterville neighborhood in Chicago, Edwards told a group of mainly young Democratic business and professional people that America needed to strengthen the right to organize and create “democracy in the workplace.” And an hour after his Change to Win appearance, he made essentially the same pitch to a crowd of several hundred potential Iowa caucus-goers in the sheep barn at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.
Edwards walks the talk as well, often on picket lines. The week after his swing through Iowa, he joined a rally at the giant Smithfield hog processing plant in his home state to demand that the company, a notorious labor law violator, recognize workers when a majority signs union cards. During the past two years, the Edwards campaign claims, the former senator and vice-presidential candidate has taken part in more than 200 different union events with more than 20 unions, including a national contract campaign tour for hotel workers, a fast with janitors organizing at the University of Miami and an airport rally in Texas for Continental Airlines ramp employees who were organizing.
“He’s redefined the way public officials engage the ongoing work of the labor movement,” says Chris Chafe, the former chief of staff of UNITE HERE and one of several labor officials with high-level positions in the Edwards campaign – not counting campaign manager David Bonior, the former staunchly pro-union congressman who previously headed American Rights at Work, a labor-rights advocacy group. “I don’t think anyone has come so close in recent memory to putting himself so squarely behind issues central to the labor movement. We’d welcome institutional endorsements, but our goal is to have workers and union leaders focus on what he does as well as what he says.”
If the labor movement put its formidable operations behind Edwards it could lift him out of his current third place in the pools and give him a better shot at the nomination. But odds are that unions will be divided. Some are so internally split that they may not be able to make an endorsement. Some will emphasize factors such as familiarity and electability since they see most of the candidates as politically acceptable, even if Edwards has most clearly identified his candidacy with the labor movement. Yet even if they’re divided, unions could still make a difference – if they don’t cancel each other out: In the 2004 Iowa caucus, for example, Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean labor backers fought each other so brutally that both candidates suffered.
Most unions are holding internal discussions, polling members, holding presidential forums and setting tests for candidates – such as the Service Employees’ request that each candidate spend a day working with one of its members. (Edwards leapt to be first to take part in the “walk a day in my shoes” exercise.) In August, the AFL-CIO will host a candidates’ debate in Chicago and then begin deliberations on a unified endorsement. Only two candidates have ever mustered the two-thirds support needed – Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. Although some labor strategists argue that Edwards could pass that bar, more observers agree with AFSCME Political Director Larry Scanlon that “it will be very hard for any candidate to amass the two-thirds for the AFL-CIO endorsement.” Despite his close work with Change to Win unions, Edwards is no shoo-in for their endorsement either.
A hill to climb
Edwards faces several obstacles. Unlike recent primaries, when many union strategists complained about the unappealing choices they faced, this season “people talk about the quality of the candidates,” says AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman. “All of the candidates have long-term relationships with lots of [union] members and leaders.” Perhaps challenged by Edwards’ early identification with labor, other candidates have developed a stronger union message than, for example, Bill Clinton ever did. Hillary Clinton can tap into her ties to New York’s huge union membership and union leaders’ familiarity with her and her husband. Barack Obama has close ties to the big labor bloc from Illinois, sympathy from many black trade union members and a broad progressive appeal. Meanwhile, Edwards comes from a state with nearly the nation’s lowest union density, and in the 2004 primary he won only one endorsement, from the textile union UNITE.
“Labor generally likes Edwards in terms of what he says on the two Americas and labor,” says Janice Laue, executive vice-president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, in the critical early caucus state where Edwards has led most recent polls. “On the other hand, you have Hillary Clinton, who, like Obama, has support from individuals in the labor movement. Her husband’s popularity probably carries over a little too, not to say she isn’t popular in her own right. And a lot of people think Obama represents diversity, a fresh face, and they like what he did at the Democratic convention. But the labor movement is about as split up among those three [leading candidates] as anybody else.”
Ultimately, many unionists feel that Edwards is, as one official put it, “one of us.” Despite his personal wealth, he is the son of a millworker who has made poverty and class divisions central to his campaign. He strikes many industrial unionists as the most sensitive of the top three candidates to their concerns about trade and globalization. And he’s campaigned concretely and vigorously for universal health care, most recently proposing additional cost-control measures, such as making critical drugs available more promptly as generics and limiting private health insurance company overhead. “Lots of people like John because he’s talking about our issues every day,” says Steelworkers Political Director Chuck Rocha. “Right now, he’s making people in the labor movement feel important.”
Unions, however, want to go with a winner (which is why so many offer Rep. Dennis Kucinich as an example of someone who is right on nearly all the issues for labor but without a prayer for labor support). “What matters is who can win in ‘08,” says Scanlon. “That’s the driver.” On that count, Roger Tauss, legislative and political director of the Transport Workers Union, notes that Rasmussen surveys have recently shown Edwards as the only Democrat to consistently outpoll all the top Republican nominees. “It is not true that Hillary can’t win,” he says. “Under certain conditions, any Democrat can win. But she has no margin for error.”
Many labor strategists think that Obama will fade as the serious non-Hillary candidate and that Clinton’s fate will be like that of Joe Lieberman’s, who led the Democratic polling at this stage of the 2004 campaign. They say she will be dragged down by her persistently high negative ratings in polls and by identification with the conservative, business wing of the party at a time when economic populism and antiwar sentiment are growing stronger.
Edwards advocates workplace democracy and the right to organize unions, but his message is directed not only to union members or officials, but also to the aspirations and frustrations of working- and middle-class voters. Sharing a theme with Obama, he tells audiences that electing a president can’t solve the country’s problems, that only a grassroots citizens’ movement will bring real change.
Edwards remains the proverbial upbeat American politician, despite his talk about poverty. He has dropped the “two Americas” rhetoric from the last campaign in favor of a hope for “one America.” He favors rolling back the Bush tax cuts for households earning over $200,000 a year, but he’s cautious about advocating policies that would limit or redistribute the massive concentrations of wealth by the top 1 percent of taxpayers in recent years. For example, he has not endorsed Democratic congressional proposals to reverse the favorable tax treatment enjoyed by private-equity fund managers.
“I’ve said in the past that I’m open to the idea that for those with extreme wealth, like myself, that we may need to bear more responsibility,” he said in an interview after his talk at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. “I haven’t proposed anything yet. Speaking for myself, I still believe in a country of aspiration. We want to live in an America where people can do extraordinarily well. We just want to extend that opportunity to people who don’t have it now. To me, it’s more about opening up opportunity.”
“Bush policies clearly accelerated economic growth of Americans at the top,” he continued, “but there are global factors at work. If you’re highly educated and have capital, you’ll do great in the age of globalization. But unfortunately that has the effect of stratifying class. It makes it more difficult to go from one class to another. What we want to do is break down that stratification and create more fluidity between classes in America. There are lots of tools for doing that – universal health care, access to college, unionization, dealing with the public school system.”
When his wife, Elizabeth, took the microphone to enthusiastic applause at the fairgrounds, she asked the audience to consider whether the candidates believed in some cause or simply in themselves as a leader. She suggested that the audience fill in the blank in a sentence using each candidate’s name: “Gary Johnson,” for example, wants to be president because he believes _______. And it’s not enough if the blank is filled with the candidate’s name. “John Edwards wants to be president,” she said, “because he believes the opportunities that were available to him should be available to every person.”
The message strikes a classical, if increasingly mythical theme of American mobility, but Edwards’ subtext conveys a strong egalitarian note and a hint of redistributive economics. Ultimately, he seems to understand that the country must become more equal in incomes and other real conditions of life in order to make equality of opportunity meaningful. Edwards also recognizes that creating equality of opportunity first requires redistributing power, which is why his support for unions is so critical for his strategy. Obama learned the same lesson early in his career as a community organizer, but his current campaign often overshadows that message of empowerment with its quest to find common ground in a new, less partisan Washington.
Edwards suggests that a political leader can – and should – take sides in that realignment of power. “What would it be like to have a president who spoke about the Employee Free Choice Act [legislation to make organizing easier that the House passed earlier this year, but Senate Republicans blocked in June]? Who spoke on the right to join a union?” Edwards asked the Change to Win meeting.
Against the American grain
Edwards’ populist message and his appeal to union members and many working- or middle-class voters goes beyond the questions of workplace democracy and equality of opportunity. His approach sets him apart from Hillary Clinton and Obama. But his ideas about a new energy policy, a new patriotism (not tied to war) and a new and respected role for America in the world do not dramatically distinguish him from the other Democratic candidates. Obama’s earlier and more principled opposition to the war in Iraq undercuts Edwards’ currently strong antiwar rhetoric. And so far, he has not sparked the same excitement as Obama’s campaign, raising the question of what might lift him out of his current lagging status in the top tier.
In many ways, Edwards is swimming against the stream, fighting the preconceptions of the mainstream American political media, with his talk about alleviating poverty and building stronger unions. Yet that message is important for the Democrats and the country, whatever happens with the messenger’s candidacy.
“I think the American people need to be reminded that organized labor – unions – helped build the middle class in this country,” Edwards told the Change to Win crowd in Iowa. “We love to talk about the jobs that we’re all worried are leaving the country, but those jobs weren’t good jobs before the unions. The unions made them good jobs with good pay and good benefits and helped build the middle class that made America great and literally made it the country of the 20th century. Now the question is how to make America the country of the 21st century, and you play a crucial role in that.”
Edwards clearly hopes they will help him play a leading role as well.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.